Argus looked over his shoulder. Brave-Heart's limp was becoming more pronounced and his tongue lolled out as he panted, painfully wheezing with each breath. Blood matted in dark sticky patches and deep gashes scored his flank. The creature's eyes winced with each movement but there was also stubborn strength that refused to give up.
* He's like me, * thought Argus.
* He is like us, * sighed the Wolf.
* Sorry, I was just thinking to myself. * There was a scratch of boot on metal floor up ahead. He slowed, gesturing urgently with his hand, and sending his mental voice to the injured wolf. * Brave-Heart. *
* I smell them. * The creature's nose twitched with excitement and his pain-filled eyes were bright. * We will fight. *
The Wolf harrumphed as Argus kept his head turned away and suppressed a smile, saying, * Avon would say he's exactly like us. *
In his mind, the Wolf blew out a loud exhale in response.
A door swished opened, there was a light scuff of boots and the door closed. It was quiet again except for the flutter of air through a loose vent. * It's clear. * Which was just as well, he didn't want the unenviable task of explaining to the wolf it was too injured to fight.
* I'm not that bad, am I? * Argus asked the Wolf, wondering if Bright-Eyes would sigh and roll her eyes the way Reya did. Of course, Reya had him restrained to the bed when he wouldn't listen. What did wolves do?
They continued on, their ears sharp and Wolf had stayed conspicuously silent. Was this a 'no comment'?
Argus asked, * We're not, are we? *
* Do you often talk to yourself? * Brave-Heart's voice was just like Wolf's. For a moment, Argus wasn't sure to whom the voice belonged.
* It would take too long to explain, * Argus told him, hoping the wolf wouldn't think he was relying on a crazy person. Although these days, with the discovery of the Wolf in his head, he often felt like one.
* We may talk together if you wish, * said Brave-Heart.
Argus groaned. The wolf must think he was lonely. * We’re here. * And not a minute too soon as he rapped on the door with the pre-arranged sequence. Brave-Heart lifted his head higher and his ears became less droopy.
The door slid open, a black nose appeared, then a muzzle and beautiful amber eyes as bright as a shimmering moon. The two wolves stared at each other through the open doorway. They touched noses and rubbed their muzzles together.
Argus said, * We’d better move this inside. *
* We should. * said Brave-Heart.
* Oh! * The she-wolf registered alarm and circled her mate as he entered and she saw his injuries. * You’re hurt! *
* It’s not too bad, * said Brave-Heart.
* But you’re hurt! * She fussed and began licking his wounds while he gave the wolfish equivalent of a sigh. He nuzzled her neck affectionately. * It looks worse than it is. *
The quick look she flashed him said otherwise.
Cally approached with her medical pouch. “Would you allow me to examine your wounds? I am a healer. *
Argus said, * You can trust Cally. She is a member of my pack. *
The she-wolf dipped her head, * We would be very grateful. *
* We would? * asked Brave-Heart, looking warily at Cally.
* Yes, dearest. She is clever with her hands and can heal your wounds. * She nudged him gently on the side and he winced. * You need help. Please let Cally help you. *
With a huff of resignation, the wolf let Cally approach, eyeing the medical scanner with suspicion but not shying away.
Satisfied he was leaving the wolf in capable hands, and not wanting to intrude on their reunion, Argus checked on the others.
It was strange having so many identical faces that looked just like him. Trickles of uneasiness dripped down his spine as they all stopped what they were doing and followed him with their eyes, looking menacing in their black-shelled mutoid uniforms.
"I see they're ready." He stood beside Avon.
"They're clothed," Avon said without expression.
"Avon, we're not using them like machines," Argus said firmly, hearing the unspoken words.
"You've made that quite clear," he said stiffly.
"Sorry. I just feel…"
"You have a propensity for misplaced guilt."
"It's not that."
"No?" Avon's brows rose in doubtful query.
"It's…responsibility. I feel responsible for them." These clones were him. It was a chance to have a different life and he wanted to give it to them.
"You cannot be responsible for everyone."
Argus sighed heavily. "That's easy for you to say." He turned to look at him. Avon's profile was impassive, as always, and even though he could no longer see the depth in the other man's eyes, Argus knew deep thoughts seethed underneath. "What would you do with them? Assuming you could do anything."
"You already know."
Argus wondered what it would have been like if they had never been separated. "I know what you told me."
"Then it's a redundant question."
Sester, still leaning against the wall behind Avon, was listening intently to this conversation as he continued observing the interaction between the clones and the crew. They all seemed to love the young Argus's. Like the soldiers, the clones were polite and respectful, and they had great curiosity about their new surroundings. There was an ingenuousness to them that Argus still possessed, though his was tinged with sadness and pain.
"It's not," said Argus.
"Then your definition of 'redundant' must be different than mine." The sarcasm was light but unmistakable.
Argus wished there were eyes he could look into. Avon hadn't said much about his disability, which was not surprising, but it had to be bothering him.
He wasn't sure why he was pushing Avon on this issue. If he insisted, he knew Avon would relent. But it felt as if they'd reached a threshold in their relationship and the ghosts of their pasts needed them to do this.
Argus said, "Avon. I want you to decide what to do with the clones. The pods are still here and you can program them the way you think they should be."
"You're trying to manipulate me." Avon's eyes were sightless slits of suspicion and the accusation hung in the air like an executioner's blade poised to fall.
The air was so electric with tension that everyone turned towards them. It was a duel and the hour had struck.
"No." Argus shook his head out of habit even though Avon couldn't see him. "This is a chance to do things your way, Avon. I can't be objective in this. I need you to make the right choice. For both of us. I won't stop you. No one will try to pressure or influence you in any way." He turned to look at everyone in the room, making sure they all understood. "You can make the rational choice and I will support whatever decision you make. No questions asked."
Jenna came up to them. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Argus turned hard eyes towards her. "It's not your decision."
"I'm not going to do it. I don't care what the two of you decide." The look on her face spoke volumes. He was crazy to leave this kind of decision to Avon.
Argus grimaced, he should have expected there would be opposition, but he promised there would be no pressure.
"Step away, Jenna." Argus said in a low, unyielding voice. "We don't need you. I will do whatever Avon needs."
"I think you're mad." The retort was angry and directed at both of them.
I can't let you spoil this. He would have to make it up to her later. The steel in his voice could not be moved. "Now, Jenna. Keep watch at the door."
She glared at him, not liking this one bit, but she took a step back. "Fine." The tone definitely wasn't. She walked away, moving stiffly, anger in each step.
"Why?" asked Avon, his voice cold.
"We're partners, Avon."
The clones snapped to attention and their eyes trained on him. "What are your orders, sir?"
"What is this?" Argus asked, mystified.
"I programmed a secondary trigger signal. It required your voice." There was still no expression on Avon's face, but he was turned towards Argus now.
"You did this, for me?"
"I promised we would find a way…" The next word seemed hard as tension played across his face like shadows that feared the light. Without the heat of the moment, in a cold, rational world, and without the face of someone in pain before him, this was much harder. "…Jack."
Jenna's lips pursed as she witnessed the two men interacting. The others might think this wonderful but she didn't like it one bit. Once again, Avon came across as less than nasty. "While this may be wonderfully melodramatic for some people...shouldn't we be doing something more important, like getting out of this base before we're all discovered?"
Argus looked down, as if he were caught doing something embarrassing, and cleared his throat. "Jenna's right. Let's get moving. Back to the shuttle."